He starred in a Purex commercial. He is now one of 145 locked out workers without pay
He was the friendly face of Purex, beaming at the TVs in his orange polo shirt while holding Rolly the naughty dog.
But now, amid a wage dispute at the Kawerau tissue paper factory, the employers who once made Grant “Snow” Carncross their star have cut him.
For three weeks, Carncross and 144 other workers at the factory in the small town of Bay of Plenty were shunned from their workplaces by the factory’s international owners, Essity. Some workers – those who were suspended after an earlier strike – have had five weeks without pay.
Carncross, who was cast in the 2017 Rolly commercial in a workplace audition, said he knew some of his co-workers would struggle.
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“I’m fine, but you’re worried about young workers, those with kids and mortgages,” Carncross said from his living room. “Although I’m getting a little demoralized.”
Carncross has already seen strikes in Kawerau, an industrial town built in the shadow of Pūtauaki Mountain on the edge of Kaingaroa Forest.
Most notable was the 1986 strike at Tasman Mill, which lasted an unprecedented three months. Carncross started working there just before. He doesn’t know if Essity management will share the same kind of story and understanding of the impact of such events on Kawerau, but he remains optimistic.
“I think they have a moral obligation to do the right thing for the workers and the community,” he said. After all, Essity is one of the two largest employers in town, along with Oji, the factory next door.
“With 145 people tightening the reins, it will have a ripple effect on local businesses. I hope they will understand soon.
Pulp and Paper Workers Union (PPWU) Secretary Tane Phillips said workers only wanted a pay rise in line with inflation. At the start of the negotiations, it was 5.9%. It is now 7.3%. Essity, a Swedish-based multinational, refused, instead offering 3% each year for three years, and a lump sum.
“We’ve calculated that on average our workers will lose about $110 a week if we take their deal,” Phillips said. “The first offer they made to a union was 2%. I told them “it’s insulting”.
Negotiations have been going on since the start of the year and are getting increasingly heated.
Over the past few months, various groups of unionized workers have staged a series of 48-hour strikes. Then management suspended all workers from the plant, saying it could not operate while the strikes were ongoing. Shortly after, on August 9, Essity initiated the lockdown, saying he had “no choice”.
Last week it blocked workers’ access to hardship allowances from their pension scheme. And last night he issued a legal threat to hold 67 employees liable for more than half a million dollars in damages from the previous strike.
“I’ve been here 22 years and it’s unprecedented,” said team leader Simon Goddard, who converts paper into tissue paper products.
Factory workers work 12- or 8-hour shifts, including night shifts most weeks. During the Covid-19 closures, they were working up to 24 hours overtime per week, to fill in the gaps.
“After all the overtime we put in to keep toilet paper on the shelves at this time, it’s like a kick in the teeth.”
In a statement to the media, Essity managing director in Kawerau, Peter Hockley, said the workers were “well paid” and were among the highest paid manufacturing employees in the country. He said accepting the union’s offer had a “real potential” to cost jobs.
It also declared a $15 million upgrade (for which the company received $1.5 million from the government), to convert a paper machine drying process to geothermal energy, had been indefinitely delayed due to strike action. Hockley has not commented on the lawsuit.
Goddard said he believed the company was trying to intimidate workers into accepting his wage offer.
“I don’t think we have a lot of money, we have what we need to survive,” he said. “Yes, we are well paid, but we do shift work. We miss so many things for years and years with our families. They say shift work takes five years off your life.
Machine operator Roger Coffin said what workers were being paid now was hard-earned and he didn’t want to see it back down.
“Our uncles, our aunts, our grandparents, they earned this for us,” Coffin said. “If the company had what it wanted, we’d be on minimum wage. But we are proud of what we do, and we were also proud to do our part during Covid. »
“They are trying to say that if we don’t agree, our jobs will be in trouble. It’s a threat to me.
The union has raised concerns about a shortage of toilet paper if the factory cannot resume production soon.
Essity is one of the largest hygiene and health companies in the world, with 46,000 employees. Its brands include Purex, Sorbent, Libra and Handee. It has thrived despite the pandemic. Its profit for the first six months of 2022 was NZ$330 million, with a 27.8% increase in net sales.
Meanwhile, Kawerau has struggled in recent years with issues related to poverty, drugs and youth suicide. As of the 2018 census, its unemployment rate was 10%, compared to 4% nationally. Last year, Norske Skog’s long-standing paper mill was closed, reducing employment opportunities.
Phillips said the union’s deal remains on the table. “They could sign, and we should be back to work tomorrow.”
In the meantime, workers were doing their best to remain optimistic, he said. The union had provided grocery vouchers and financial advice. The workers met regularly.
“They are resilient. It is a small city. We take care of each other.”
At Grant Carncross, he stops Goddard outside as he leaves. “Buddy, can I donate my vouchers to one of the other families?” he asks and goes inside to retrieve them.